Red-tagging our bookstores

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

I have been a part of the Manila Critics Circle, which chooses the winners of the annual National Book Awards, since 1991. We just issued a statement denouncing the red-tagging and vandalism of Popular Bookstore and Solidaridad Bookshop. These are not just book stores but iconic places of our intellectual history as Filipinos.

“The Manila Critics Circle denounces in the strongest possible terms the red-tagging and vandalism of two bookstores, Popular Bookstore and Solidaridad Bookshop. Each bookstore had their storefronts defaced with graffiti in red paint accusing them of being a ‘(New People’s Army) NPA front.’

“Such malicious vandalism is an attack on the right to free speech, the right to think for oneself and the right to choose what they wish to read. Such graffiti threatens the owners, employees and customers of these bookstores.

“The MCC urges the authorities concerned to act immediately on these threatening acts of red-tagging. People should feel safe going to the bookstore, and they should not have their freedom to avail themselves of the literature of their choosing curtailed in any way. These businesses should not be threatened, nor should the people they employ.”

I first visited Popular Bookstore when I was a college student at Ateneo de Manila University in 1983. It was then located at Doroteo Jose in Manila. While choosing which books to buy, I was listening to people talking – bravely and freely – against the Marcos dictatorship and I thought, ‘Wow! A place where one can air one’s thoughts against the venalities of the Marcos regime!’ It was an eye-opener for me.

Aside from Popular Bookstore, I also visited Solidaridad Bookshop when I was in Manila. Housed in a building that seemed straight from the 1960s, it was filled with so many books that I told myself silently I wished I would live to be old so I could read as many titles as I could.

Later, I would return to the two bookstores on several occasions, to buy the books I needed for my classes. Yes, they included the poems of China’s Mao Zedong and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh – flaming Communists, both – but also poets of the highest order. But I also brought home other titles, all hardbound: an edition of “Dubliners” by James Joyce, whose delicate constructions would influence my writing; an edition of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” by Milan Kundera, who gave me another vista on how novels could be written; and of course, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who changed the way I saw the world of fiction and its possibilities.

Before I left for an Asian Scholarship Foundation grant to Malaysia to do research on the literature of South East Asia in 2003, I dropped by Solidaridad Bookshop. I hoped to find some books I could read before I left the Philippines, to give me a head start on my research. And this fabled bookshop by the late National Artist, Frankie Sionil Jose, did not fail me. I brought home copies of the books of poems by Shirley Lim and Muhammad Hajji Salleh, two of Malaysia’s finest wordsmiths.

So how could these places of intellectual ferment be tarred, feathered and called nests of communism? The Constitution of 1987 does not forbid discussions of communism and its (dis)contents. What the Constitution forbids are covert and overt acts that abet sedition, rebellion, treason and other acts inimical to the country’s interests. How can selling books become part of this assemblage of prohibited acts?

It now reminds of what the late Father Joseph A. Galdon of the Society of Jesus once told me. The American Father Galdon was our much-loved professor and chairman of the vaunted English Department of Ateneo de Manila University.

One day, when we were walking on the leaf-strewn square in front of Kostka Hall, Father Galdon said that after martial law was imposed in 1972, a posse of military men descended on the English Department. He was then holding office and inquired why they were in the department.

“We are here to look for  books that will destroy the country!” one of the officers told Father Galdon. They were not armed with a search warrant, but since that was martial law, Father Galdon just told them there were no such books, but they could look around if they want.

The military men checked the departmental library, which consisted of holdings donated by the academic staff, the alumni and the diplomatic corps. One of the officers, with triumph gleaming in his eyes, held a book and he told Father Galdon: “Now, this is a Communist book. It is against the government.”

But he was holding a copy of Father John Schumacher’s book, “The Propaganda Movement.” Father Galdon exercised self-control (and Father Galdon looked like the American comic Bob Hope) and did not laugh. He just told them, in solemn tones, that the book dealt with the Propaganda Movement that started in 1872 against the Spanish regime in the Philippines.

Another officer found a small book with a yellow cover. It was Neil Postman’s “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” The officer said, “Now this one is surely subversive. It even has the word ‘subversive’ on the cover.”

Father Galdon, who did perhaps 1,000 seminars on the teaching of the English language and literature all over the country, just told the officer that the book “dealt with pedagogy, or the art of teaching.”

When the officer looked unbelieving (or lost), the good Jesuit informed him that Postman’s book, which was published in 1969, was a no-holds barred assault on “outdated teaching methods – with dramatic  and practical proposals on how education can be made relevant in today’s world.” In sum, the book said that the student should be at the heart of the teaching and learning experience.

Nothing subversive in those books, until the officers – aha! – chanced upon the poetry books of Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. These poems formed part of the syllabus on Asian Poetry worldwide, but the officers seized the books.

These were the very same books that I would buy 20 years later, when I began to teach Asian Literature in the Ateneo classroom. And do not red-tag me, because I was born in Basa Air Base, the son of a military officer and until now, my closest friends are the military and police officers of the land.

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